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U.S. Allowed Iran to Supply Bosnian Muslims with Arms

By Daniel Williams and Thomas W. Lippman
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

With the Clinton administration's tacit acceptance, Iran has delivered large quantities of arms to Bosnia's Muslim-led government over the past six months, according to senior U.S. officials.

The delivery from Iran of what one official termed "hundreds of tons" of weapons and ammunition has brought the Bosnian government's mostly Muslim army much closer to military equality with Serb separatists as the spring thaw makes combat operations more likely, the officials said.

The deliveries violate a United Nations arms embargo against Bosnia and other former Yugoslav republics. But Washington has not objected, because it has long regarded the Muslim government as the victim of aggression by better-armed Serbs. It has acquiesced even though the aid has come from Iran, an avowed enemy of the United States dedicated to spreading anti-Western, fundamentalist Islamic revolution.

"We're not really against someone helping the (Bosnian) Muslims," a senior State Department official said.

President Clinton has favored ending the U.N. arms ban to permit the Muslims to obtain arms to fight back, but he has declined to lift the embargo unilaterally in the face of strong objections from Britain and France. They fear an escalating conflict would endanger their peacekeeping forces in the Balkans.

To mollify those NATO allies, the administration has informed the Bosnian government not to import weapons that could endanger the foreign peacekeepers, particularly ground-to-air missiles that could be used against relief or military flights, a senior official said.

The improvement in the Muslims' military position has helped lead the United States to conclude that the Bosnian civil war, now entering its fourth year, is likely to continue and that efforts to achieve a negotiated solution are probably futile at present, officials said.

Most of the shipments from Iran to Bosnia have passed through Croatia, which is in a quasi-alliance with the Bosnian government and which has skimmed a percentage of the weapons for its use, the U.S. officials said. Most of the supplies are "not big-ticket items such as tanks" but small arms, antitank weapons and ammunition, according to one official with access to information. That plays to the Muslims' strength, which has been in infantry warfare against the Serbs, who rely on tanks and heavy artillery.

Iran's motive in making the shipments lay in its professed desire to sow seeds of Islamic revolutions abroad, a U.S. official said, much the same reason that Tehran is sending arms to Algerian rebels through Sudan. Overall, U.S. officials estimate Iran is spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year in support of overseas Muslim armed groups.

The first signs of Iranian support were discovered almost a year ago, with the arrival in Zagreb, Croatia, of an Iranian Boeing 747 jet filled with arms and other supplies. The deliveries have now become routine, U.S. officials say, and have received tacit approval.

The supply set the stage for the recent surprise Muslim offensive and for an upsurge in fighting generally between Bosnian government forces and the Bosnian Serbs, who are backed by expansion-minded Serbia across the country's eastern border.

The Iranian deliveries raise numerous, tangled issues for the Clinton administration, which has tried without success to fashion a negotiated settlement in Bosnia.

In one sense, the administration ought to be highly upset by Iran's intervention. The arms traffic violates the regional U.N. arms ban, which Washington officially supports although Serbia has routinely ignored the embargo in its effort to wrest away part of Bosnia.

Moreover, the administration is expending much effort worldwide to warn of the fundamentalist threat emanating from Iran, accused by Washington of abetting terrorism. At a minimum, the deliveries imply a prolonged war, with continued suffering by civilians.

Administration officials are gearing up to fight a proposal by Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole, R-Kan., to force Clinton to ignore the arms ban and supply the Muslims. It will be difficult for the administration to argue Dole is wrong in wanting to arm the Muslims while it turns a blind eye when Iran does the same thing.